Review of "The Kingdom of this World"

The pacing of Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Kingdom of This World
means that the life of Ti Noel, the main character, goes by in a swift 180 pages. The novel also includes the perspectives of Pauline Bonaparte and Lenormand de Mezy, a French planter, that flee Haiti to Cuba following the outbreak of the revolution. This lack of focus on the main actors of the slave revolt, such as Toussaint Louverture, as well as it’s change of setting to Cuba helps contextualize these events as not being cordoned off within what came to be Haiti but as an event of Caribbean and indeed World History and additionally seeks to hint at the means in which other “ordinary” people played in it. This subaltern perspective additionally hints at some of the later conflicts that would develop in Carpentier’s home country, Cuba, and also gives him the capacity to allude to similar developments that would happen far after the events of the revolution. Most specifically, the French planters violent enforcement of productive relations unperturbed by the moral and legal rights emanating from the “mother country” has clear overtones to the American/Cuban financial interests that perpetuated terrible conditions for agricultural laborers.

Though one of the main ur-texts of magical realism, a style Carpentier called “lo real maravilloso”, the book is also the product of deep historical research. Carpentier extensively read up on the Haitian revolution. One such example of this is the novel’s early narrative of Macandal, a mentor to Ti-Noel, a historical figure that was a charismatic leader of Maroon bands that lead raid and killed slave-owners through armed violence and poison. As it relates to this particular historical figure, the magical aspects of the novel describe his ability to transform into various animals and insects in order to escape detection by the slave-owners. This is especially significant as it explains how he was able to travel to foment rebellion amongst the slaves in an area that as a black person would have meant capture, imprisonment or, as was to later happen, death. Additionally the attribution of such potential for magical transformation allows Carpentier to highlight the oppression felt by the Haitian slaves. Non-human creatures, lacking owners, are potential sources for the spread of insurrectionary sentiment. A bird, a fly, a horse – all are Macandal because all are free. This is not, however the only way that news of Macandal’s

One of the dominant themes of the book is the conflict which exists between the Christian and Voodoo religions as well as the practices of African and European soveirgnty. As Ti-Noel relates it to the latter, the Europeans are an effeminate, weak people and are only powerful because of their increased capacity to use weapons that are in comparison to their own much technologically advanced. From Macandal’s teaching, Ti-Noel comes to remember the wisdom of his homeland and view it as superior to that of Europe. A good example that directly tackles this conflict is found in the narrator’s description of Ti-Noel’s thoughts: “In Africa the king was warrior, judge and prier; his precious seed distended hundreds of bellies with a mighty strain of heroes. In France, in Spain, the king sent his generals to fight in his stead; he was incompetent to decide legal problems; he allowed himself to be scolded by an trumpery friar.” The scorn shown by him towards the French is serious, but also a point of mockery due to the naming of the French king as Dauphin, or dolphin. On the issue of religions, the slaves see the Christian God as the God that is impelling the French to make the slaves suffer while their gods demand vengeance and the destruction of the white God that is attempting to kill them. The slave-owners come to understand this, recognize and thus attempt to regulate some of their use of fetishes. Their ability to do so is shown as being weak, understandably so given the difficulty in truly deracinating such beliefs, and they fear drums. Drums are no longer just a means for the slaves to occupy themselves following their labor in the field but are also a socializing point where songs can be sung about those fighting the slave-owners and also for communicating with distant farms so that military actions can be accomplished on a co-ordinated basis.

Judicial execution, murder and a scene presaging rape are all part of the text but Carpentier’s focus is not so much on the actual battles but the changes to Ti-Noel’s daily life following the transition to a new order. The new regime in power, one made primarily of mulattos, has certain conditions that it must require in order to sustain itself and so replicates some of the same or worse practices of the previous labor regime. Ti-Noel’s forced ejection from the ruins of his master’s house and the “rebirth of shackles” is setting for how the novel ends. Ti-Noel reflects upon these circumstances, leading him to come to believe that “Man’s greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is. In laying duties upon himself.” From this gains the power to change into animals that Macandal once had, declares war upon the class of rulers, shifts out of human form and is never seen again.

Review of "The Supreme Court"

As an introductory text to the institution, The Supreme Court by Lawrence Baum does an excellent job of covering every major aspect of how the court operates. Baum delineates the decision making processes that play into the setting of the court’s agenda, periodizes the trends in rulings and charts the various developments of court norms and practices in an almost conversational, politically neutral manner. This last quality ought not to be taken to mean that Baum does not point out some of the potential problems of the court, but that they are left to the reader to research further into those subjects on their own.

One example of this is in his charting of evolving court norms. Baum points out that new standards of professionalism has meant that those lawyers not adhering to them are looked upon with disdain by the court and interrupted by the judges more frequently. By itself it could be seen as a logical adaptation of an institution, however it’s pointed out by the author that this has had the effect of making it more difficult for various interest groups to be able to argue at the Supreme Court level. The reason for this is because large amounts of money must be spent on lawyers who specialize in arguing in front of the court. Another issue linked to the increasing divergence of SCOTUS rulings from populist pressures is the large growth in the submission of Amicus Curiae briefs to court. As I said earlier though, Baum is not interested in arguing so much as he is expositing in a functionalist manner that does not isolate the court from it’s place within society and acknowledges that the special interest groups will attempt to sway the court or mobilize their base for donations.

Additionally Baum devotes a significant amount of attention to the current court’s occupants. Prior to biographical insights that may affect the current court’s jurisprudence, Baum charts the social background of the judges over time, showing how it is that once the children of elite were the only occupants of the robes and how it is now more, ostensibly, of a more meritocratic nature. Baum sagely points out, however, that the conservative nature of the institution, the social interaction with elites concomitant with such a career path is likely to make any sympathies with the “lower-class” to be negligible.

Throughout Baum is keen to downplay the role of the court as a policy making institution, especially as it relates to modern times, and focuses more on the aforementioned procedural issues. In this emphasis on the court’s “indirect impacts” I think we come to one of the books few weaknesses. Their lack of their capacity to enforce certain actions, their reactive nature and the manner in which laws alter social relations amongst actors in manners that are often difficult to quantify are just some of the issues that, while alighted upon, seem to me to be emphasized unduly. This is not to say that he completely ignores counterfactuals, touching briefly as he does on NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Television Company and Marquette National Bank v. First of Omaha Service Corp. Recent SCOTUS rulings have drastically altered the economic, social and political landscape and if not wholly emanating from the court are at least legitimized by their pronouncements. As I said in the beginning though, these are issues to which Baum is not actively seeking to analyze. I’d purchased this books in hopes of finding something that I’d be able to assign as supplementary reading for my American Government class for those interested in law and for that end find the book to be ideal.

Review of "The Mandarins"

After writing and publishing The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir won the Prix de Goncourt for her work. It is a not so subtle look at many of the people within Parisian intellectual society following the Second World War. Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Arthur Koestler are just some of the luminaries whose names have been changed for the sake of fiction. Through their conversations amongst each other and the dalliances they have we obtain an interesting insight into some of the more brilliant minds of the time as they try to sustain a certain level of authenticity and integrity as they wrestle with the circumstances in which they find themselves.

That said I was, however, generally disappointed with the book. The fault is not, however, with the writing itself but the story. The problem with the story, however, is not the fault of the author but of the historical situation in which the book is set. Following the Second World War, an exhausted France is trying to come to terms with it’s now apparent global insignificance, recover from the destruction wrought by the German army as well as those that had collaborated with them during the occupation. The streets of Paris are anything but gay and several of scenes of reverie which de Beauvoir writes about has an air of escapism to them. Understandably so, the only people with enough money for such distractions are either foreigners or those that are quite well to do.

While lacking the historical distance to be able to foretell where the then current trends in international geo-politics would go, many of the significant divergences between the socialist and communist parties and a more general humanitarian movement are brought to the light through the interpersonal conflict and conversations. While not always going into great depth, it does hint at the different values operant with the groups. As a reader familiar with the ideologies as well as the historical situations I didn’t find myself swimming in confusion, but I think that someone without this base would find this to be alienating. Perhaps, however, this is de Beauvoir’s point, however. That rather than being able to come together in a meaningful manner small variations keep these people together from uniting to become a significant political force. This infighting amongst strong egos for leadership of “the people” thus becomes one of the reasons that the right is able to come to power.

Besides these overtly political considerations, de Beauvoir also reflects on the nature of the intellectual, writing life, the nature and form of reconciliation following a war that had many collaborators, friendship, death and to a lesser extent sex. While filled with many pithy, quotable statements, I also think that at times she can overly swarm the reader with non-essential information. Sometimes it is of the sort outlined above, which I enjoy reading for it’s edifying nature, but sometimes I knew in advance that it had little to do with much else. Simone de Beauvoir’s side story of her dalliance with American writer Nelson Algren, for instance, while highlighting Sartre’s lack of possessiveness and her alienation and desire for excitement also seems to drag on at times. The little mind games that they play with each other appear spurious. While highlighting the desire for love even in a country turned upside down by war, it is perhaps longer than necessary.